Virginias Joe Harris tips the ball away from Maryland's Logan Aronhalt. (Katherine Frey/The Washington…)
Two teams chugging along divergent tracks collided Sunday. With an 80-69 win over Maryland behind a rejuvenated offense, the upstart Virginia men’s basketball team continued to cement its place on the NCAA tournament bubble, even with a baffling résumé. The Terrapins, meanwhile, needed a strong February to remain in the discussion. Instead, they left disappointed, soul-searching over another loss that plunged their postseason chances deeper into the abyss.
Whenever a loose ball squirted across the Comcast Center hardwood, a packed home crowd flecked in gold and starved for a marquee win howled in unison. Every 50-50 opportunity, it seemed, went the other way. Maryland found itself lethargic and outhustled all afternoon, pounded into the parquet by the resurgent Cavaliers, suffering precisely the letdown it couldn’t afford.
“I thought we were a half-step slow,” Maryland Coach Mark Turgeon said. “I thought they were real physical, held their box-outs. We didn’t handle the physicality early very well. It was their day. It was their day. Definitely wasn’t ours.”
The Cavaliers shot lights-out for the second straight game: They made 57.9 percent of their three-point attempts.
Maryland, meantime, remained baffled by Virginia’s packed-in defense, which aggressively denied post-entry passes and forced the Terps, a poor jump-shooting team, into deep and rushed attempts.
Coming off a two-game winning streak, including their first ACC road win in exactly one year, the Terps entered a crucial week marked by home dates with Virginia and Duke, looking finally to break through. Except they simply broke down early on Sunday; they trailed 35-29 at halftime. Even against an undersize Virginia lineup missing freshman forward Mike Tobey (mononucleosis) and starting just one player taller than 6 feet 6, the Terps failed to secure any inside presence and were outrebounded for the first time all season.
The Cavaliers (17-6, 7-3 ACC) have found new life through their guard-heavy rotation and have hit better than 40 percent of their three-points for three straight games.
The Terps sank to 17-7, 5-6.
“It was target practice out there today,” Virginia senior guard Jontel Evans said. “Nobody could miss.”
The Terps’ only previous loss at Comcast Center this season came in a second-half letdown against Florida State on Jan. 9. Virginia endured struggles on the road, beating only Virginia Tech away from John Paul Jones Arena in ACC play.
But the Cavaliers hung 80 points on a hapless Maryland defense, their second-highest scoring total in conference games during Coach Tony Bennett’s tenure. Not even a new-look press and some forced turnovers could save the Terps, who went small to combat Virginia’s streaky shooting.
“I think one of the reasons we rebounded well was that they didn’t always play their two bigs at times, they tried to match up with us offensively,” Bennett said. “Early when Justin [Anderson] had one of the fours or fives on him, he really got free.”
Showered with boos and chants of “traitor” from the announced crowd of 16,895, Anderson, who originally committed to Maryland, finished with a career-high 17 points and presented an infuriating matchup problem on the wing.
By the time he stuck an acrobatic layup over Alex Len while being fouled with 31 seconds left, the gold-clad Terps fans began filing for the exits.
Four Cavaliers finished in double figures, led by Joe Harris’s game-high 22 points on 7-of-8 shooting. Paul Jesperson also had a career high with 12 points, all on second-half three-pointers.
Maryland, looking to string together its first three-game winning streak since a 13-game run earlier this season, had four players score at least nine points, but shot just 29.4 percent from three-point range.
Dez Wells led the Terrapins with 13 points and Seth Allen added 11 points, five assists and five steals.
Out-muscled underneath and panicky when double-teamed, the Terps saw Virginia open the second half on a 12-5 run. Harris caught Wells napping for an easy inbounds tip-in. Jesperson stepped into an open three-pointer. Jontel Evans floated a high-arcing runner over Len. Add a few missed looks and another Jersperson three-pointer, and suddenly the Terps were down 13 points.
“Playing at home, in front of a great crowd, guys have to be ready to go,” Maryland guard Logan Aronhalt said.
“It really opened some guys’ eyes now. It’s gotten so late in the season. There’s no more next game. It’s got to be right now.”